L.A. nimble, ready to host Special Olympics World Games

The winding, diverse city of Los Angeles is prepared to handle in influx of over 7,000 athletes with a variety of needs from all over the world for the Special Olympics World Games. AP Photo/Kim Johnson Flodin

LOS ANGELES -- By definition, it's impossible to hold an equestrian event without equines.

Los Angeles will host nearly 7,000 athletes from more than 170 nations arriving later this week for the Special Olympics World Games, which begins on July 26. They will be in need of housing, meals, transportation and more. But among the most challenging issues aren't about people at all.

Broadly, the logistical challenges connected to staging the Special Olympics World Games are the same as any other similarly sized international event. Those athletes, coaches and officials all need to eat, sleep and get from Point A to B to C, no easy task in a city with the near-infinite size of L.A.

And they need horses. A lot of horses. Between 70 and 80, specifically, to accommodate more than 100 riders competing over four disciplines at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, located on the northern edge of L.A.'s famed Griffith Park. Like all Special Olympics athletes, riders competing in the four equestrian events have a range of intellectual disabilities, often paired with physical disabilities.

Those realities demand horses of a particular temperament. Individual athletes might have limitations in the ability to deliver commands, whether physically or verbally.

"They all have to be gentile, kind, forgiving, tolerant," said Bryan McQueeney, director of the equestrian competition for Special Olympics. "So how forgiving is the horse? If it only responds to one very specific cue to canter, will that horse work?"

McQueeney's team posted to social media, industry magazines and websites, essentially asking people to hand over members of the family for 10 days to relative strangers for an event most don't fully understand. Owners can't be told who would be mounted on their horses because those matches won't be made until shortly before the competition.

On paper, it was a tricky sell. In practice, event organizers found a community eager to help.

"We've had so many people reach out to us," said Brie Wilson, part of the team responsible for horse recruitment. "People taking time out of their day, with their hearts in the right place, throwing their hat in the ring and wanting information."

Kate Wilbur of Los Angeles owns a quarter-horse and a thoroughbred, both very well-behaved and personable. She saw an email detailing the need, and quickly responded. "It wasn't a hard decision at all," she said. "Horses are part of the family, and it's pretty cool to say two of our family members are Olympic athletes. It's an exciting opportunity, and an opportunity to give back."

There's a natural gravity drawing people in the community like Wilbur to contribute, and that illustrates what makes Special Olympics unique among other major sporting events.

It all starts with travel. Typically, the word "Olympian" conjures images of worldly athletes hopping the globe from competition to competition. Not necessarily so for Special Olympics athletes.

"We've got teams and coaches and volunteers involved in these delegations, and many of them -- I would say the vast majority -- have never traveled much before," said Jan Palchikoff, senior vice president for sport and athlete experience at the World Games. "Some of the athletes, this will be their first time going anywhere. That adds a level of complication. There is not the kind of sophistication with understanding how to deal with the challenges of travel."

Event organizers pay special attention as well to the ways in which the stress of long-distance travel along with changes in environment might impact athletes requiring regular schedules for medications managing everything from blood pressure to seizures, or those with behavioral issues. Those are dealt with from the moment athletes land in Los Angeles. "For the last two years we've been coordinating with the various authorities involved in security, diplomatic arrivals, passport control, customs, all of that stuff to facilitate the arrival of these teams," Palchikoff said.

Should any athletes require medical attention or need support related to stress caused by the trip, Special Olympics has developed a series of protocols designed to deliver assistance at the airport.

After arrival in L.A., the next challenge is to get them to their residences and events. To best slay the city's infamous traffic dragon, athletes, coaches and delegates will be housed not in a central "village" or by country, but by sport, whether at UCLA, USC, or in any one of 34 different hotels. As a result, 60 percent of athletes won't need transportation to reach their event venues, another 20 percent will have to travel fewer than three miles, and none will go more than 12. Mass movements of athletes will be limited to opening and closing ceremonies.

In any context, this would simplify transportation networks and reduce stress on the participants. Keeping Special Olympians in close proximity to competition sites is particularly beneficial given their varying needs and abilities, and the strict protocols in place designed to guarantee their well-being.

"This group is not completely independent," Palchikoff noted. "One of the standards in Special Olympics is that athletes participate in a ratio of four athletes to one coach. [Each delegation] has to staff it in that way. So when you have a team of 12 players, for example, and two of them need to go to the restroom, somebody needs to go with them. So there's this constant movement of the coaching staff."

The venues themselves reflect the same dedication to streamlining the athlete experience in the most positive way possible. UCLA, hosting six sports, was chosen not simply because it has the requisite athletic facilities, but because it routinely feeds and houses tens of thousands of students a year. It has an existing infrastructure to accommodate the 3,700 athletes and personnel descending upon Westwood for the World Games, plus enough parking for the spectators, staff and media coming to watch and work.

"While we're going to be using every field they have and all the dorms -- that's a first for them, I think -- it's really just exaggerating what they already do, day in and day out. That's been making our jobs a lot easier," said Jean Dillingham, Special Olympics' general manager at UCLA.

USC, hosting three sports and a large number of athletes and coaches, is similarly equipped. By placing the athletes this way, rather than in a central village, Special Olympics can better serve their needs, minimizing idle time at venues while still allowing athletes to adequately prepare and keep any necessary medication schedules. Both UCLA and USC will also host Special Olympics festivals, featuring food, music, games and arts showcases, meaning most athletes won't require transportation to take advantage of opportunities for entertainment or see teammates in different competitions.

Venues such as UCLA also provide tremendous amounts of human capital, people critical to the Special Olympics effort. Overall, about 9,000 people are expected to donate time, language skills and even their communities through Special Olympics' Host Town Program, 600 alone from UCLA.

"They have started their own volunteer network for students, faculty and staff," Dillingham said. "Greeting athletes when they arrive on the 24th, helping in the dining hall at 6 a.m., carrying trays for athletes to expedite the meal process. They're willing to do that. They're very prideful. They want to participate."

Save sport-specific challenges like the process in equestrian to appropriately match horses to riders, in many ways the competitions themselves are the least complicated part of the equation, despite the fact spectators unfamiliar with Special Olympics may not fully understand what they're seeing. Special Olympics utilizes a divisioning system designed to promote the greatest degree of fairness in every competition. But unlike a Paralympics competition where disabilities are generally more obvious, spectators at Special Olympics may not be able to identify an athlete's disability by sight.

"People with intellectual disabilities arrive in that condition through a whole range of ways. It may be a birth defect, genetic issues, and then there are traumatic injuries or illnesses that end up causing issues that would make somebody eligible for participation in the Special Olympics," Palchikoff said. "There are also a range of physical disabilities present dependent on the individual, and there's a whole spectrum."

Educating the viewing public on what it is they're watching one of the most important logistical challenges organizers face. On the one hand, it is serious competition. Athletes at the World Games have reached the highest levels of their individual sports, training and preparing as any athlete does. They are not competing for charity or to provide the 6 o'clock news with a series of feel-good stories, but to achieve at the highest level their bodies and minds allow.

At the same time, though, Special Olympics World Games is not intended to be a display of elite athleticism. Adaptations are allowed based on the needs and abilities of individual participants. Rules for familiar team sports may be modified, and judging in sports such as gymnastics may not be as harsh. Equestrian will shorten courses and remove jumping. Golfers competing at Griffith Park may never have seen a course as long, with as many hills, or even with trees.

"You have to take a look at what's going on and make sure every athlete is being serviced in a way that's fair," Wilson said. "They're used to the unfairness. They know. It's part of their daily life, no matter what. They're fully aware of the unfairness of society and such, so this is a way to level it and give everyone the opportunity that a lot of us who don't struggle with any disability have."

Special Olympics honors effort. Goals are inclusion and acceptance, benefiting not only the athletes participating but the people who watch and volunteer.

"It's something that's theirs alone -- not a parent doing it for them, a sibling, a therapist, a coach -- this is them on their own. That's a huge deal. You'll see that kind of confidence and beaming that Special Olympics is known for," Wilson said.

"They're doing it just like the able-bodied world. There are considerations and there are some adaptations, but it's really close. And you don't get that everywhere."